Carrie Underwood had a lot to compete with for fans’ attention on Saturday night.
As she poured herself into “Cry Pretty” an hour into her show at the Smoothie King Center, World Series updates were being exchanged between urinals in a men’s room. Along an arena concourse, a cluster of dudes stared at a big screen tuned to the LSU-Alabama battle royale.
When LSU went up 24-21 late in the fourth quarter, a man hustled down the stairs bordering section 113, giddily sharing the news like the town crier.
Given all the sports storylines playing out simultaneously, it’s a credit to Underwood that even more people weren’t sneaking peeks at the various games on their cell phones.
But given how spectacular she sounded, it’s really no surprise.
Few female voices, in any genre, can hold a candle to Underwood’s when she is at full throttle, as she was in “Cry Pretty.” The inspirational song, which she co-wrote following a 2017 fall that broke her wrist and required dozens of stitches to her face and mouth, is about the impossibility of keeping one’s emotions in check at certain moments. There’s no way to “cry pretty,” she asserts, and that’s okay.
Standing at the center of a dazzling stage, she dug deep on “Cry Pretty.” All the brassy power of her soprano was there, as she held a succession of ever-bigger notes, finally dropping to her knees. A singer on a big stage needs such big moments. She delivered hers.
The voice of the “Sunday Night Football” theme song, Underwood first came to fame in 2005 after winning the fourth season of “American Idol.” She’s reigned as one of contemporary country’s best-selling artists ever since.
Her current tour is in support of her ninth studio album, “Denim & Rhinestones,” which she released in June. The Smoothie King Center’s general-admission floor was packed on Saturday, as was the lower bowl; some seats in the upper level were empty.
Underwood didn’t skimp on the production, which featured a sleek, multi-tiered stage with a diamond-shaped extension, an elaborate video wall, lighting trusses running the length of the arena, a half-dozen disco balls and a flurry of fireworks and other effects.
During “Ghost Story,” she rode a trapeze to a satellite stage at the rear of the arena floor. She gave the folks in the back bleacher seats an up-close look as she belted the big notes of “Black Cadillac.”
She prefaced “Garden” by stressing how important it is “in this world to be kind, to be nice, to lift people up around you.” To that point, in “Garden,” she sang, “If you reap what you sow, what kind of garden would you grow?”
She credited “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” a breakthrough hit from her debut album, as the song “that set me up to sing other songs.” As a devout Christian, it clearly means more to her than a career boost. She transitioned directly into the traditional hymn “How Great Thou Art,” her voice in full glory. From “great” to “thou” to “art,” she seemed to find another gear for each word. Even nonbelievers might have been moved to utter, “Jesus, that woman can sing.”
Following that Sunday morning church moment, Underwood returned to Saturday night concert mode by boarding a flying gyroscope, barefoot, for “Crazy Angels.” Hanging her head upside down from the gyroscope, she wailed “Crazy Angels” effortlessly. The song typifies the good-girl-with-a-wild-streak trope that Underwood milks.
Back on the main stage, opening act Jimmie Allen joined her for a duet on the “Denim & Rhinestones” title track. Their cute bout of choreography aside, the song itself is nonessential. So, too, the sass and stomp of the fiddle-laced “Flat on the Floor.”
In “Poor Everybody Else,” her brawny band – four guitarists! – made a mighty noise. But Underwood more than held her own within it.
After introducing the band, she took a brief turn on a sparkling silver drum kit, flailing away unselfconsciously. With her knee-high boots, short-shorts and sparkling garters, she evoked a different Carrie – Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and the City,” recast as a nice Christian girl who can sing.
Case in point: “Last Name,” a song about having a bit too much to drink in Las Vegas and waking up married without even knowing her new last name. As she finished “Last Name,” chants of “L-S-U” broke out as news of the Tigers’ overtime victory rippled through the arena.
As if in need of redemption following “Last Name,” she reappeared atop a pedestal in a pale blue gown for “Something in the Water,” in which the protagonist is baptized in a river: “Felt love pourin’ down from above/Got washed in the water, washed in the blood/And now I’m changed, now I’m stronger/There must be somethin’ in the water.” In a nifty special effect, points of blue light on the video screen seemed to radiant from her.
The pendulum then swung back to the bad girl. Underwood counts Guns N Roses frontman Axl Rose among her vocal idols and has covered GNR songs throughout her career. True to form, she led the band through a faithful “Welcome to the Jungle.” As hellfire flames rippled along the edges of the stage extension, she mimicked Rose’s signature shimmy and spin, even if her otherwise remarkable voice can’t match his banshee wail.
She returned to her comfort zone for the final “Before He Cheats,” the revenge anthem that established her as a force in contemporary country. The cheers that followed had nothing to do with football.